2011 Season Preview: Saturday's America And The TCU Horned Frogs

Turnover has poked holes in the Horned Frogs' offense and defense, but as they prepare for a second chance at major conference life, they appear ready to absorb losses and departures with only minimal damage to the win-loss record.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

As it happened, I learned rather early in life that the result of a college football game was more important than wars or depressions. I learned it at the first college game I ever attended which was three days before my seventh birthday on the contemptuous afternoon of November 30, 1935. This was the day of the biggest thing that ever happened to Fort Worth, Texas, a game between TCU (11-0) and SMU (11-0) to see who got the Rose Bowl bid. My father has never revealed how he got us tickets, which went for $100 each, but getting to go to the game was my birthday present.

Now, of course, all I knew at the time was that it was an event of some vital interest around the household. Only later would I discover how immense it was, with Bill Stern and Grantland Rice and all such celebrities as that coming down for it. I would remember that there were more people than I had ever seen before in, around, outside of, down on the field of, and trying viciously to get into, the stadium. The grandstands at TCU in those days held only 24,000, and the best estimate is that maybe 40,000 somehow got in, largely by driving their cars through the wire fence that surrounded the place.

I recall that we arrived two or three hours before the kickoff and that my father, a long-suffering TCU fan who still hasn't recovered from that game, bought and pinned on me a huge purple and white button with a picture of a player on it and printing which said: I AM FOR SLINGIN' SAM BAUGH AND THE FIGHTIN' FROGS. [...]

I did realize that TCU didn't win the game, but it was a few years later before I understood why my father and I, and some of his friends, sat there for two hours after it was over while they all had misty eyes and used some funny language and kept taking swigs out of these little silver-looking bottles in their pockets. "Cough medicine," my dad said it was, but when I coughed he said I didn't need any.

Anyhow, that whole experience told me exactly how important college football was.

That is from pages 40-42 of my tattered, disintegrating copy of Dan Jenkins' Saturday's America (criminally out of print), and it is both the most beautiful piece of college football writing in existence and the reason why I find myself feeling so incredibly happy for TCU as they have surged back into the college landscape. It makes me want to hug myself, throw my Excel sheets into the trash (okay, drag them) and hitchhike to Tiger Stadium, or Bryant-Denny, or Autzen, or The Big House, or, of course, Amon G. Carter Stadium. It makes me fall in love with college football over again. In a time when it is easy, almost logical, to grow irreparably cynical and scorned by this sport, a passage like this -- a reminder that in 1935, Fort Worth stopped in its tracks for a big game, just like Auburn, and Columbus, and Madison, and Gainesville, and Lubbock, and Corvallis do today -- is like "our song" coming on the radio and reminding us why we fell in love in the first place.

The best writing makes you feel what the writer feels; Dan Jenkins is a TCU fan, therefore I feel like a TCU fan. And the fans in purple and white have witnessed, in slow motion, one of college football's great redemption tales. A powerhouse under Francis Schmidt and Dutch Meyer in the 1930s and a resurgent program in the 1950s, the Horned Frogs fell to a desolate place, winning just 15 games in a ten-year span in the 1970s and early-1980s. If they were cheating like the rest of the Southwest Conference in that time, they were doing a terrible job of it. They experienced just one eight-win season in the final 36 years of the SWC, and they were removed from the major conference ranks, but under first Dennis Franchione (remember when he was the hottest name in coaching?), then Gary Patterson, TCU has won 10 or more games in eight of the last 11 seasons. They were the last team not named Oklahoma to win a game at Owen Field in Norman. They are expanding and renovating their tired stadium. They are regaining their major conference perch in 2012. They are officially a major college football program again.

In this time of major transition in terms of perception and stature, 2011 will be one of transition on the field for the Horned Frogs. Patterson has proven himself to be nothing if not one of the best coaches in college football, and chances are the transition will go as smoothly as possible. But a few new names and faces will attempt to maintain TCU's current level, which, if you believe advanced stats at all, is that of a Top Five program.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 13-0 | Adj. Record: 13-0 | Final F/+ Rk**: 6
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep vs Oregon State 30-21 W 28.7 - 26.7 W
11-Sep Tennessee Tech
62-7 W 38.7 - 11.6 W
18-Sep Baylor 45-10 W 44.6 - 14.2 W
24-Sep at SMU 41-24 W 33.3 - 24.1 W
2-Oct at Colorado State 27-0 W 26.2 - (-0.7) W
9-Oct Wyoming 45-0 W 51.1 - 13.7 W
16-Oct BYU 31-3 W 33.4 - 3.5 W
23-Oct Air Force 38-7 W 48.2 - 7.8 W
30-Oct at UNLV 48-6 W 31.2 - 13.1 W
6-Nov at Utah 47-7 W 55.7 - (-6.2) W
13-Nov San Diego State 40-35 W 38.2 - 18.9 W
27-Nov at New Mexico 66-17 W 34.7 - 7.4 W
1-Jan vs Wisconsin 21-19 W 35.8 - 20.1 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 41.6 4 12.0 1
Adj. Points Per Game 38.4 7 11.9 1

 

Seventy-five years after little Dan Jenkins saw his dad's favorite team miss its shot at a Rose Bowl bid, the Horned Frogs finally made it to Pasadena. TCU rolled through their regular season unscathed (and only once truly challenged), outscoring their toughest six-game stretch of opponents by a 236-23 margin, and snatching a slot in the Granddaddy Of 'Em All. Both their offense and defense alternated between very good and merciless, and they capped a dream season by outlasting a clinically efficient Wisconsin team to finish undefeated and ranked second in the country.

The funny part is, this team really probably wasn't even as good as the 2009 team. But as we learned with Oregon the other day, timing is part of the battle. This team got the opportunity that the 2009 team did not, and they took full advantage.

More than any other recent mid-major program, TCU has cracked the code for scoring great rankings despite middling schedules. They don't just beat the lesser teams on their schedule; they murder them. They saved an extra gear for the best teams on the schedule (Adj. PPG vs Wisconsin, Utah, BYU, Air Force and Baylor: 43.5), and only once all year (before the bowl game) did they almost slip up; and that was to a San Diego State team playing at an extremely high level.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 14 16 13
RUSHING 10 12 11 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 17 19 17 13
Standard Downs 19 11 31 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 9 20 9 16
Redzone 7 8 8
Q1 Rk 9 1st Down Rk 43
Q2 Rk 37 2nd Down Rk 4
Q3 Rk 17 3rd Down Rk 15
Q4 Rk 17

 

First things first: if TCU slides a bit in 2011, a green quarterback likely will not be the No. 1 reason why. Andy Dalton (2,857 yards, 9.0 per pass, 66% completion, 27 TD, 6 INT; 490 pre-sack rushing yards, +5.3 Adj. POE) was incredible for the purple and white over the last four years, but this is a run-first offense (almost significantly so), and the Horned Frogs' rushing ranks trumped their passing numbers last year. Dalton played his part perfectly and will be missed, but Casey Pachall (78 yards, 8.7/pass, 67% completion, 1 TD; 128 pre-sack rushing yards, +6.2 Adj. POE), now with two potentially healthy shoulders, should perform as a reasonable facsimile.

No, the real problem for TCU in 2011 comes up front, where four quality starters have departed from the line. Rimington award-winning center Jake Kirkpatrick and fifth-round draft pick Marcus Cannon were the headliners, but guard Josh Vernon and tackle Zach Roth will also be missed. TCU had one of the strongest lines in the country, and it has been picked apart. That is a much larger concern to me than the loss of a quality quarterback in a system designed to absorb the loss of a quarterback.

If the blocking doesn't fall apart, a quality corps of running backs is ready to roll. All four of TCU's top running backs return, led by the underrated Ed Wesley (1,078 yards, 6.5 per carry, +8.7 Adj. POE, 11 TD) and backups Matthew Tucker, Waymon James and Aundre Dean (combined: 1,445 yards, -3.7 Adj. POE, 13 TD). Wesley can carry this offense for long stretches, but only if he has holes through which to run.

Other tidbits:

  • It is uncertain how long it will take Pachall (or whoever ends up being TCU's new starting quarterback) to get up to speed, but he has a really interesting receiving corps at his disposal. Gone are top-notch targets in Jeremy Kerley, Jimmy Young and Bart Johnson (combined: 1,480 yards, 18 TD, 8.8 yards per target), but Josh Boyce (646 yards, 19.0 per catch, 67% catch rate, 6 TD) could be ready for a star turn, and plenty of 2010 backups -- Antoine Hicks (175 yards, 13.5 per catch, 59% catch rate, 2 TD), Skye Dawson (170 yards, 14.2 per catch, 75% catch rate), Logan Brock (110 yards, 18.3 per catch, 100% catch rate, 2 TD) return, and any from a host of high-quality freshmen (LaDarius Brown, Brandon Carter, David Porter III, Cam White) might enter the mix.
  • Take a good look at the footprint above. With a run-heavy approach and an almost Oregon-esque pace, TCU wasn't messing around in 2010. They are known for their defense, but the offense has been equally responsible for the fact that the Horned Frogs haven't lost a regular season game since November 2008.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 3 3 3
RUSHING 17 46 7 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 1 1 4 30
Standard Downs 6 8 6 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 1 1 3 31
Redzone 57 74 54
Q1 Rk 19 1st Down Rk 2
Q2 Rk 1 2nd Down Rk 27
Q3 Rk 5 3rd Down Rk 1
Q4 Rk 17

 

The 3-4 defense has been slowly spreading throughout the country, but TCU's 4-2-5 has been so incredibly successful that it is starting to proliferate as well. Here's what I wrote about TCU's alignment in my Rice profile:

Rice runs a variation of the 4-2-5 defense that TCU and others have ridden to fame.  As TCU has proven, a 4-2 front can do great things if you have the speed to pull it off.  As with a 3-4, you are able to get lighter, faster players on the field, and you can disguise what you are doing.  But to me at least, the 4-2-5 is based more around reaction than any sort of attacking nature.  Run to the football.  Leverage them where you want them to go, then swarm.

TCU's defense is basically the football version of UNLV's old Amoeba Defense -- wherever you go, there are four guys closing in on you. It takes extreme speed and discipline, and the Horned Frogs have a boatload of both. The TCU defensive line was only solid in 2010 and far less spectacular than the rest of the defense, but the back seven was so fast, so effective, that it didn't really matter. Wisconsin had the biggest, baddest offensive line in college football last year, and despite the fact that TCU's defensive line wasn't particularly big (their best returning tackle, D.J. Yendrey, is just 275 pounds, barely bigger than either of the projected starting ends), they held the Badgers far below their season averages.

In this sense, the loss of two quality linemen -- end Wayne Daniels (30.0 tackles, 14.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU, 2 FF) and tackle Cory Grant (13.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks) -- might not have that much of an impact, especially not with the return of end Stansly Maponga (23.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman) and tackle D.J. Yendrey (12.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks).

What could hurt, however, is the loss of six of the top nine defensive backs from what was probably the best secondary in college football. Patterson has shown that he is going to put a good defense on the field no matter what the experience level may be, but the secondary was so good last year that it is hard to imagine there won't be at least a slight drop-off. Gone are three incredible safeties -- Tejay Johnson (53.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 4 PBU, 3 FF), Colin Jones (66.0 tackles, 11.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU) and Alex Ibiloye (30.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU, 3 FF) -- a great cornerback (Jason Teague -- 32.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 2 FF) and solid role players in safety Jurell Thompson and corner Malcolm Williams.

Don't cry too long for the defense's losses, of course. Safety Tekerrein Cuba (40.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU) returns, as do corners Greg McCoy (27.0 tackles, 2 INT, 6 PBU) and Travaras Battle (15.0 tackles). Safety Johnny Fobbs (5.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) showed potential in limited playing time, while junior college corner Jason Verrett and incoming freshman Chris Hackett could make quick contributions.

Other tidbits:

  • A thinned-out TCU secondary could be cause for concern, but the return of two great linebackers will certainly soften the blow a bit. Tanner Brock (82.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU) and Rose Bowl hero Tank Carder (48.5 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 5 PBU) are both back, as are Kenny Cain (22.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) and Kris Gardner (10.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks). Middle linebacker and free safety are perhaps the most key positions in the 4-2-5, and while free safety may be in flux, you cannot ask for a better 4-2-5 middle linebacker than Carder.
  • Just how well did TCU swarm last year? A whopping 17 players registered at least 10.0 tackles, 19 players had at least one tackle for loss, and 10 players sacked the quarterback. That's insane. It's also a recipe for great depth and better ability to absorb losses in personnel.

TCU's 2010 Season Set to Music

"Apache Rose Peacock," by Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Canadian Rose," by Blues Traveler
"English Rose," by The Incredible Vickers Brothers
"Good Year For The Roses," by Elvis Costello
"My Old Faded Rose," by Johnny Cash
"Roses," by Kanye West
"Roses," by Outkast
"Roses From My Friends," by Ben Harper
"Van Lear Rose," by Loretta Lynn
"When The Roses Bloom Again," by Laura Cantrell

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 5
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 60
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +9 / +8.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 8 (4, 4)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -7.6

 

Once a team earns my trust, it is difficult to lose it, and despite the loss of 14 combined starters (and a 2010 YPP margin that screams "REGRESSION!"), TCU has my trust. They have one of the steadiest recent track records in the country, and they have potentially the best coach as well.

There is no question that an incredibly deep 2010 gets a little thinner in 2011, and there is no question that inexperience on the offensive line will prevent a new quarterback from skating along with few problems. This is why Boise State is the rightful team to beat in the Mountain West in 2011. But appearances suggest that a step backwards for TCU will just be temporary, as coaching, development, and improving recruiting are all in the Horned Frogs' favor.

TCU is one of the best stories in college football, having truly built a powerful program with no major conference support. Life begins anew for the Horned Frogs; many key components to the Rose Bowl team are gone, while Big East membership, a new Amon G. Carter Stadium await, and a second chance await.

I specifically remember this clear, chilled autumn day when Abe and I were strolling around on the stadium floor at TCU about half an hour before a big game against the University of Texas. The stands were filled, the bands were playing, and the two teams were warming up as the sun beamed down on the rich purple jerseys of TCU and the orange shirts of Texas.

We walked slowly along the sideline, just looking around, breathing in the clean air, enjoying the tension and the excitement that builds toward an opening kickoff. Abe had his hands stuck in the pockets of his lucky brown suit.

"Well, all you can say now, Coach, is that this is liable to be a formal dance," I said.

"Aw, yew bet," said Abe. "Today we're gonna have us a sheep shearin' out here on this foo-ball field."

Abe walked on a few steps and then paused and sort of stretched and looked all around the stadium.

"Danny," he said. "You know what this is up there in those stands and down here on this foo-ball field? What we got around us here is the greatest thing in the whole world. What we got here is Saturday's America."

I knew then, all of those years ago, that a marvelous old country gentleman had given me the title of a book.

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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